Thursday, March 31, 2011

Boycott: The Gathering!

Seems a rather appropriate follow-up to Tuesday's article. Yet more proof that there are some wicked talented folks in the pro-Palestine camp. And no, you don't have to be a fan of Journey to like this video!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It's Not the Women Who Need to Shut Their Mouths...


The following is the lead section from an article by Rachel Cohen that appeared on SocialistWorker.org yesterday. It takes up the reality of sexism and "raunch culture," but in particular calls out the video by Your Best Friend's Ex for "Bitch Shut Your Mouth" (which I refuse to link here, for the same reason I don't go around pouring Drano into people's coffee).

The whole article is worth reading. Cohen is of course correct to place raunch culture--in music or otherwise--within a context of persistent sexism. That this kind of crap can find its way into all corners of music speaks to how systematic it really is. Lower pay, attacks on reproductive freedoms, a booming sex industry and the inescapable commodification of women's bodies are very real things that can't be simply brushed aside from what videos like this say. Claims to "irony" just don't ring true in this reality.

I find it more an indictment of our culture that this vid can become such an online sensation--not only for its twisted misogyny, but for the shallow hook, idiotic lyrics and overall thin songwriting. Personally, I'd find them more entertaining if they were getting the shit kicked out of them by Jean Grae, Donita Sparks and Kathleen Hanna.

----------------------------------------

Misogyny has a new musical manifesto. The single "Ode to Women" by the band Your Best Friend's Ex revolves around the refrain "Bitch, shut your mouth" and is polluting the Internet with a music video full of women in not much clothing, dancing, lip synching and barely containing their excitement at being treated like dirt.

There's little to separate this video from a million other manifestations of pornographied pop culture--except that it so aggressively presents the most unreconstructed hatred for women as entertainment.

It suggests that if a man is bothered by a woman talking, he should have her give him a blow job to shut her up. It makes a special detour to patronize "library chicks" for daring to "think for themselves." It even features a woman on her hands and knees with duct tape over her mouth.

It seems to say: I dare you to call this out for the heinous, hateful garbage that it is. So here goes.

"Ode to Women" epitomizes today's "raunch culture"--the ubiquitous, hyper-sexualized portrayal of women that in fact damages and degrades us but is passed of as irony, wit and even empowerment.

In the 1980s, the right wing launched a concerted campaign to convince people that we live in a post-sexist age, and we ought to move on to post-feminism as well. But the conservatives are savvy enough to avoid explicit arguments for the subjugation of women. Instead, a rising tide of sexually exploitative images and ideas about women has played an increasingly central role in maintaining a cultural justification for the inequality faced by women in the United States.

"Post-feminism is really a return to pre-feminism," as a Times of London interview on raunch culture with longtime feminist writer Catherine MacKinnon demonstrates. MacKinnon says:

"When we started, what we were trying to accomplish was so radical and so far out that nobody could take it seriously, and then all of a sudden, we're told everything we ever want has already been accomplished, and we are passé. I want to know, when are we current?"

In the pretend equality of a post-feminist world, women and women's bodies can be treated as objects in a way that's presumed to be about sex rather than about inequality. But that lie is given away when "sexy" sexism combines with more straightforward sexism, like having women mouth the words "Bitch, shut your mouth," while dancing right out of their clothes.

Defenders of raunch culture fall back on a climate that sees only the puritan and the playboy bunny, the fun-lover and the feminazi, so if you contest their bigotry, you just don't get the joke. But not only is the sexism in "Ode to Women" not funny--it's actually not a joke at all. The objectification of women only exacerbates the very real daily encounters with harassment, violence and discrimination that women endure.

As Hugo Schwyzer lays out in a recent article for online magazine Jezebel:

"Harassment isn't about sex. It's about power. It's about taking pleasure in degrading another human being. Most harassers know damn well that shouting sexual slurs is a lousy seduction strategy. But whether they harass alone or in groups, most men who openly stare, yell, whistle (or worse) aren't interested in getting laid... What they want is the thrilling reminder of their own masculine power."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Foolish Side of the Cultural Boycott Line


Gene Simmons has been known for a lot of less-than-savory things. His long tongue is probably his most infamous, and yet few have said much about his big, bigoted, misogynist mouth. The Kiss front-man, who was born Chaim Witz near Haifa, recently opened that mouth to call artists boycotting Israel "fools."

Simmons is currently in Israel to film scenes for his reality show, Gene Simmons' Family Jewels. In an interview with the Associated Press, he gave some rather condescending advice to those same artists: "The countries they should be boycotting are the same countries [where] the populations are rebelling ... People long to be free ... And they sure as hell don't want somebody who's a ruler who hasn't been elected by them."

For his own part, Simmons has been a long and vocal supporter of Israeli and American foreign policy. He loudly stumped for both the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and in 2006, as Israel bombed Lebanon, he sent messages of support to Israeli soldiers. And his supposed liberalism hasn't prevented him from describing Islam as a "vile culture" to The Sydney Morning Herald in 2004.

Now he's directed this same bile at some of music's most legendary figures. The Pixies, Gil Scott-Heron, Carlos Santana and Pink Floyd's Roger Waters are only a few of the personalities who have lent their names to the cultural boycott over the past few years.

The call for an economic, academic and cultural boycott goes back to 2004, when groups, intellectuals and activists from within Palestine issued the call. The past nine years have seen the call supported by a growing number of groups world-wide and since Israel's lethal attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010, the amount of canceled gigs has greatly increased. Elvis Costello, who pulled out of two shows in Tel Aviv after the raid, explained his rationale on his website:

"One lives in hope that music is more than mere noise, filling up idle time, whether intending to elate or lament ... Then there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent."

Costello, along with many other artists like him, have been lambasted by countless voices both in the mainstream press and the world-wide blogosphere. Right-wing columnist and radio host Debbie Schlussel labeled him "scum," and accused him of "appeasing" Hamas. Shuki Weiss, a high-profile Israeli concert promoter, called the boycott "cultural terrorism." Indeed, Gene Simmons' own words highlight the momentum that the cultural boycott of Israel has gained lately -- and what a potential problem it's become for Israel's public image abroad.

Simmons is notably careful to put the whole question in terms of "freedom," a rather oblique word that any politician is ready to trot out at a moment's notice. The same interview notes that his own mother was a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, which once again pulls the whole conversation about Palestine and Israel away from the realities of colonialism and boils the conflict down to a matter of "Jew vs. Muslim." It's a mistaken notion that nonetheless seems to jive with Simmons' own "clash of civilizations" worldview.

Of course, at least in the interview, there's no mention of the boycott on its own terms, no mention of the one word that Israel and its backers fear: apartheid. After all, to do so might put Simmons on history's bad side.

It's a potent line to cross. Those who struggled against apartheid in South Africa no doubt remember the loud and proud role that music played. Artists United Against Apartheid, launched in 1985 by Little Steven Van Zandt, garnered support from countless musicians. Run-DMC, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Herbie Hancock, Joey Ramone, George Clinton, Peter Gabriel are just a few of the musicians who famously refused to play South Africa while apartheid remained intact.

Simmons wasn't part of AUAA. But then, "integrity" has never been the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Kiss, a group who have eagerly lent their image to anything that will make them money -- lunch-boxes, action figures, cartoons, soda commercials and credit cards have all been deemed worthy of the Kiss "brand," but alas, not the struggle for human rights.

The real insult, however, comes in his insistence that artists should be boycotting the "countries [where] the populations are rebelling." He conveniently skips over the fact that Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and most of the other Middle East dictatorships have survived through steadfast support from Israel and the US. An example of this would be one of the key demands being fought for by those still struggling in Egypt -- opening the border with Gaza!

You have to hand it to him though; Simmons has impeccable timing. His comments and visit to Jerusalem come right as Israel has launched a spate of fresh bombings of Gaza. Simmons, it seems, may have front-row seats to a crime against humanity. No doubt these particular segments of Family Jewels are going to be particularly stomach-turning. But while he runs his mouth off to no end, the fact remains that a growing number of musicians have decided Israel deserves nothing but silence from them.

First appeared at Electronic Intifada.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Finely Directed Noise


The United Sons of Toil have been around for a few years now, originating from an impressive music scene in Madison, Wisconsin. Their sound can probably best be described as a slightly less abstract version of Swans if they bred with Fugazi at their absolute heaviest. Conventional rock structures have little to do with this act.

As one might expect, they're all revolutionaries too. Their three albums feature titles like Hope Is Not a Strategy, and Until Lions Have Their Historians, Tales of the Hunt Shall Always Glorify the Hunter. Their new one is even more bluntly titled: When The Revolution Comes, Everything Will Be Beautiful. However, one should not mistake their up-front frankness for the kind of vague slogans that often pop up in "political" lyrics.

Their music and lyrics feature a keenly thought out trajectory, even as both take on the force of a wrecking ball smashing through concrete. Over the past few years, their profile has steadily grown, and they're set to embark on their first European tour. Before that, though, they'll be stopping by Chicago for a show at Quenchers, where I'll be interviewing them. In the meantime, folks should listen to their latest on Bandcamp.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Egypt: The Revolution Continues

The following is a video from CNN:



The tone seems notably defeated, at least among the Western journalists who are paid to make popular revolts seem either impossible or bound for failure. It needs to be said, if a musician can be arrested and tortured for singing the kinds of songs that inspired people mere weeks ago, if women can be arrested and subjected to "virginity tests" even after playing a crucial and leading role in that revolution, then there is understandably cause for concern.

None of this, however, means the revolution is doomed. Merely that it is bound for its next stage. The same military junta torturing protesters and seeking to make demonstrations in Tahrir illegal are also refusing to budge on Mubarak's antiquated laws on strikes and unions. The influence of the US is still rife among the country's shaken, behind-the-scenes rulers. More work is to be done. No doubt.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lowkey on Libya


The following is British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey on the UN operations in Libya. Those who are familiar with Lowkey will know that he's been one of hip-hop's most steadfast supporters of the Arab revolutions:

"In terms of geopolitics, having a presence in Libya is the perfect way for the imperial powers to co-opt revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. It is a masterful media that manages to portray military action as charitable. Governments do not go to war in the interests of humanity. Personally I wouldn't spit on Gaddafi if he was on fire, but it is for the Libyan people to get rid of him, no one else."

It's a controversial statement. Many who rightfully support the movement for Libyan democracy are in at least tacit support of the UN's "no-fly zone," including some Libyan rappers. None of this means that somehow these activists or MCs have "crossed the gamut" here; there are a lot of contradictions, and the last thing anyone wants is for Gaddafi to crush the uprising.

But some of the main contradictions is already playing out right now. For one, the strikes being launched on Libya are already taking civilian casualties, including among rebels. Another would have to be the fact that the US and its allies are carrying out empire as usual even as they claim to stand for "freedom." Case in point: the continued support for governments in Bahrain, Yemen and others, not to mention the bombings that Israel looks to be carrying out in Gaza.

Any urge for freedom is bound to hit a dead-end when it looks to the Western militaries for salvation. That's just as true for any solidarity movement as it is for hip-hop itself.

Much thanks to Derek over at Organic Intellectual for bringing this quote to my attention.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

President Ugly Micky


The new president of Haiti looks to be a musician. No, it's not Wyclef, but he was supported by the former Fugee. And if the recent bullets that almost hit Clef are to be taken seriously, prez-elect Michel Martelly has a real struggle on his hands.

It makes plenty of sense that Wyclef and Martelly would eventually team up. Both have ties to the former Duvalier dictatorship. Both have professed such a seething hatred for the democratically-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide that they have lived elsewhere for much of the latter's tenure. Both supported the coup against him in 2004.

Now, with the post-earthquake shock doctrine still tightening around the country, Martelly, like Wyclef, has made amply clear that he has no intention of kicking out occupying troops, and that he's going to make every accommodation he can for foreign business. Consequences for poor and working Haitians be damned.

That's not to say he is going to have an easy time. Aristide has returned. Though it remains to be seen what this means for any potential resistance in Haiti, it is very possible that he will become a rallying point for it.

Lots of ink has been spilled on Martelly's "popularity" over the past several months. According to many in the media, Martelly is intrinsically a "man of the people" due to his high-profile history as a musician. It's one of those weird instances when the logic of empire collides with the parody of celebrity. It should be kept in mind, however, that the elections that brought "Sweet Micky" into power have been a complete and illegitimate farce. The vast majority of voters boycotted. It should also be remembered that the Haitian people have a very long memory. Martelly may have a lot more than stray bullets to worry about.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Music Business: "Nazis Are Fine, Anarchists Not So Much..."

British anarcho-punks the King Blues have their new one dropping (finally!) on April 18th. Their new single, "Set the World On Fire" will be released a week before that, but the video has been shot. It's already causing controversy.

Watch the "official" version below:



Now watch the original version, which can't be embedded (go figure) but can be viewed here.

Most obvious is that the official version doesn't end with cops being strung up! It's certainly no wonder that the label balked at this. And, of course, the same quasi-puritans are bound to get themselves riled up over a word like "tits," even when it's used as a parody of sexism and consumerism.

But why, if you watch closely, did the label switch out the British National Party TV graphic with one of the upcoming album cover? Is it news to anyone in Britain that the BNP is anti-immigrant? Or that a band like the King Blues would want to skewer them in their videos? What's the problem here?

The censoring of that one graphic speaks volumes about the music industry. To be clear, the finger isn't being pointed here at the King Blues; any regular reader will know what a big fan I am of them. It's merely to point out that the lengths the establishment will go to not "offend" more often than not end up protecting some truly unsavory elements. A racist, neo-fascist group--one would think--deserves no quarter of "respectability," especially because that's exactly what they've been aiming for over the past decade or so as a way to further their agenda.

This isn't nit-picky in the very least. The BNP hold seats in local councils and in the European parliament. Their street thugs have been trying to opportunistically weasel their way into London's LGBT community. Racist attacks and scapegoating of Muslims, Arabs, Roma and Blacks are rife throughout Britain and Europe in general. One would think that the ones carrying out the attacks don't need any more protection. Instead, according to the censors, we should all get squeamish at the message of the left.

Free speech indeed...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Don't Misunderstand: An Open Letter to Nas


Dear Nas,

At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, I’ll be blunt: you’re one of my favorites of all time! Straight up. You can always be relied on to bring some honesty to hip-hop. During your beef with Jay-Z, I sided with you. When some folks got on your case for “Hip-Hop Is Dead,” I was arguing with them, pointing out that the criticisms of the form you love were all legit. When you endorsed Obama, even though I thought the McKinney-Clemente ticket was a better option, I publicly defended you because I knew that you were saying this is only the beginning of the struggle. In the end, that’s what it’s always been about: giving a voice to the struggle.

You’ve also let the global dimension of that struggle shine through in your work like few others of your stature. In my estimation, Distant Relatives was one of the best releases of 2010 for that exact reason. You and Damian Marley drew all the links that needed to be drawn: reggae, rap, African and Arab rhythms, Queens, Kingston, Cairo and Johannesburg. And you did it in style!

Which is why I was so frustrated to read your recent comments on the situation in Libya to MisForMusic.com: “I never saw Gaddafi as an enemy, like a deadly enemy that wanted to harm people for no reason. I kind of see him as someone who is misunderstood. I see him as someone whose... I think a revolution in Libya is important and I just hate to see that the people are against him or he has to be against [them], I hate to see any violence between him and his people, I just don’t like that.”

When asked if you thought the West should intervene, you replied “Intelligently yes, I think they could intervene so that there could be peace y’know and some understanding and sure if they can help.”

I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt here. I’m really hoping that these comments were taken out of context, or that it can be chalked up to bad editing on the part of the website. Because honestly, I know you want to stand on the right side here, and that is the side of the Libyan people.

The Libyan revolution isn’t a matter of misunderstanding. It’s taking place because the people see Gaddafi as an enemy, a dictator, and for good reason. It’s estimated that somewhere between ten to twenty percent of the Libyan population is employed by the government as informants, which ranks the nation as one of the world’s most vicious police states.

Any man whose son can afford to hire out 50 Cent, Beyonce and Mariah at a million dollars apiece to play private parties while his population struggles with a 25 percent unemployment rate is not a man of the people! This uprising is taking place in the context of the North African and Arab worlds saying they’ve had enough of strongmen leaders like Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia (hopefully, the King of Bahrain is next).

Has the Western media done their job in painting Gaddafi as a villain? Yes, and that should all be looked at skeptically. But they’ve done a better job making out ordinary Libyans to be a bunch of savage racists in need of “strong leadership.” That, along with the long history of Western colonialism and intervention should tell you all you need to know about an “intelligent” intervention.

Right now, the people of Libya, along with Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Iraq and the whole region are making clear that they want to run their countries for themselves. The amount of solidarity across national borders has been staggering. It reminds me, if you’ll allow me to say so, of the kind of unity you, Damian and K’Naan call for in “Tribal War.”

That is the kind of solidarity that the Western powers fear. They had no problem with Gaddafi when he was supporting the “war on terror” and letting Exxon-Mobil and Chevron get a piece of the oil. Now, with a long-coming popular revolt shaking the region, the US and Europe are seeing their business interests threatened. They are trying to find a way to cut the revolutions off at the head, and that’s what any intervention is going to aim for. Not peace, not understanding. It’s about the money, pure and simple.

As I write this, the UN has just sent planes over Libya, and we are guaranteed to see casualties on both sides. On top of that, there’s no guarantee that Gaddafi will end up being removed at all, and in fact several of the no-fly zone’s biggest cheerleaders have said that isn’t even the aim! Ultimately, the powers-that-be would rather strike a deal with Gaddafi--they are, after all, no more than two different sides of the same Babylonian coin.

Don’t take my word for it; take the words of the artists and MCs who have added their beats and rhymes to the struggle. These revolutions have brought an unprecedented amount of attention to the incredible and vibrant role that hip-hop has played in the Middle East and the North African diaspora.

Libya is no exception. Listen to the rhymes of MC Banks, a Libyan immigrant living in the UK, or Ibn Thabit’s “Call To the Libyan Youth,” or the many other rappers in Benghazi, Tripoli and all over who are releasing their songs anonymously for fear of reprisals. Rap has always been a voice of the people, and during this grave and scary time, that’s more true than ever.

Nas, don’t misunderstand me; these words come from the heart, as I know all of yours do. Every artist has the right to be wrong. They also have the right to change their minds. In this case, it’s literally a matter of life and death. I don’t claim to speak for the Libyan people, but I do know that the events of the past couple months have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don’t need anyone to decide their own destiny but themselves. That being said, I’m sure that they would welcome your support with open arms.

In hope and solidarity,
Alex B

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Kid Honky


The Detroit chapter of the NAACP is facing a boycott. Not from the Tea Party, Glenn Beck or any of the other mouth-breathers we would expect, but from their own members. Apparently, the organization has announced that in May, it is planning to give its Great Expectations Award to... Kid Rock.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Kid Rock can understand why there's an uproar over this. He endorsed McCain last election and has been rather friendly with the Tea Party (who the NAACP have rightfully called out as racist). He's also openly stumped for the war in Iraq, despite a disproportionate amount of the casualties being people of color. Yet the Detroit chapter somehow thinks it worthwhile to give him an award in thanks for his charity work in the area.

The chapter has been notably vague on what the actual nature of that charity work has been. With rank-and-file members, however, there's no ambiguity. Adolph Mongo of Detroiters For Progress calls out Kid on his prominent use of the Confederate flag onstage. Mongo called it "a slap in the face of anyone who fought for civil rights in this country."

He's right. Plenty of excuses are rolled out about the Confederate flag, mostly by those trying to build up some fictional version of the gentile Old South. Kid himself said in an '08 Guardian interview that "it just represents pride in southern rock'n'roll music, plus it just looks cool."

Except that it was that flag that was carried by bigots who assaulted civil rights activists across the South. It was that flag that used as a symbol of the Southern slavocracy during the Civil War. It's that flag that continues to be carried with pride by the Klan, and provoked Black trade unionists in South Carolina to launch a movement against its placement on the State Capitol building ten years ago.

So unfortunately for him, history is not on his side when it comes to the flag. And unfortunately for the NAACP, this reflects just how much they've strayed from their anti-racist base over the past several years.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Time For Some New "Ecology Songs"


The situation in Japan has been touch-and-go since last week's tsunami. Nuclear officials claim the situation is "stable," but given the level of volatility, and the likelihood of it turning on a dime, the world continues to watch.

Music fans will no doubt be aware that Lady Gaga raised a quarter-million dollars for relief in two days. Yoko Ono is also reported to have donated a large sum to the efforts in her native country. Nobody can argue that this isn't needed, but something more is too.

Bluntly put, Japan sits on the brink of nuclear disaster. The notion of building a nuclear reactor on one of the world's most active fault-lines is one that only seems logical under capitalism. The world watches so closely right now for a simple reason: "could it happen to us?" After all, Japan is hardly the only country with a large nuclear power presence.

Already in Germany, plans for further construction of nuclear plants have been put on hold after a protest of 50,000. It's an example for the rest of the world: a new anti-nuke movement, a new environmental movement, is needed.

Few songs exist that take on the environment as a topic, but part of that is because of the complete lack of upheaval around it. It's worth listening to this song for that exact reason. "Mercy Mercy Me" has made an appearance at this site before, but it seems worth posting again. After all, this is the era where just such a movement won Earth Day, forced Nixon to initiate the EPA, and passed regulations limiting pollution. If anything can be taken from the events in Japan, and this song, it's that there's still a lot more to be won.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

More On Insurance For Artists...


The anticipation of an upcoming TV On the Radio album was marred a couple days ago when the band released a public statement that bassist and keyboardist Gerard Smith was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. Smith will not be joining the band on their upcoming tour, as he is undergoing treatment.

Those who roll your eyes at this site's constant stumping for universal health-care, or those of you who believe the Obama plan goes far enough, are probably sick of this by now, but it is worth reprinting this passage from the statement:

"Gerard is fortunate enough to have health insurance and is receiving excellent medical care. Already we have seen dramatic results. Combine that with Gerard's legendarily willful disposition and it might just be cancer that has the problem. We appreciate your concern and support for Gerard and his family."

That this sequence even had to reassure its readers that Smith has insurance speaks volumes. Lung cancer (which, contrary to popular belief, doesn't always just emerge because of smoking) is a painful and ravaging disease. One would think that a sane society would provide decent care for anyone diagnosed with it.

The same can be said for Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch. The Beasties had to put their upcoming album on hold for almost two years after Yauch was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Of course, he hasn't suffered for insurance either--he's among a lucky few artists who have decent coverage, and is making a full recovery.

Now compare this to the vast majority of musicians--96 percent of them exactly. That's the percentage of artists who are either uninsured or under-insured in the United States. Given the thousands of deaths in this country that could be avoided if the patients had had insurance, it's safe to say that there's an unacceptable talent snuffed out every year.

Imagine the world for a second without TVOTR's voice, or that of the Beastie Boys, and I think you'll catch my drift.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Blue Scholars Want You!


It's exactly what it sounds like. The Seattle duo who have made a splash in the hip-hop world, gaining plenty of followers while keeping it totally indie the whole time, are looking for a bit of help from their fans. Last time around they released their OOF! EP with a myriad of options normally not available to Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Album-buyer, and with the help of local establishments and grassroots word-of-mouth in Seattle and Hawaii, it became one of the most praised releases of '09.

This time, in preparation for their upcoming full-length Cinemetropolis, they're going the route of Kickstarter, enabling them to, in their own words, "sign a deal with the people."

I could go further into it, but it seems best to just let Geo explain it himself:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pain, Promise and Protest on Lupe's Lasers


Lupe Fiasco says he has mixed feelings about his new album: “One thing I try to express about this project is, I love and hate this album... I listen to it and I like some of the songs. But when I think about what it took to actually get the record together and everything I went through on this record--which is something I can’t separate--I hate this album.”

It’s an understandable reaction after the hoops he had to jump through. Lasers, which finally dropped on March 8th, was delayed over two years by Atlantic Records. Lupe was sent back to the drawing board time and again, the execs claiming his material wouldn’t sell. It’s a move well-known to countless artists; Nas and Big Boi are only two of the notable hip-hop voices whose labels have sat on albums and refused to release them.

The frustration of both Lupe and his fans got to the point that, this past October, a protest in front of Atlantic’s office was threatened in Manhattan. A week before “Fiasco Friday” was supposed to go down, the label finally relented, and announced a March release date.

Now, critics are evidently scratching their heads at “Words I Never Said.” Released a month before Lasers hit the shelves, mainstream journalists seem uncomfortable with the song’s rather strident criticism of Obama:

“Limbaugh is a racist
Glenn Beck is a racist
Gaza Strip was getting burned,
Obama didn’t say shit!
That’s why I ain’t vote for him,
Next one neither”


These lines are just the beginning. The rest of “Words I Never Said” holds some of the most effective truth-to-power rhymes released this year, seamlessly weaving condemnations of the war on terror and Israel’s war crimes with the war of austerity here at home:

“And a bunch of other cover ups
Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts
If you think that hurts then, wait here comes the uppercut
The school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up
Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the upper-crust
You get it then they move it so you never keeping up enough”

Those expressing shock at a rapper dissing Obama clearly haven’t been paying attention outside the realms of radio and MTV in recent months. Suits and scribes alike are completely baffled by the very existence of an artist like Lupe Fiasco--an observant Muslim, teetotaller and son of a former Black Panther. But ever since his skateboarding sleeper hit “Kick, Push” five years ago, the same establishment has been trying to cash in on him.

Even after Atlantic backed down, they still did everything they could to shape the content of Lasers. The end result is that the album suffers from severe schizophrenia. Lupe himself calls certain songs “commercial art that appeases the corporate side.”

That side noticeably occupies almost half of Lasers. Many of these tracks are so cloyingly radio-friendly that they don’t even sound like Lupe. Lead single “The Show Goes On,” rushed to the airwaves in the wake of Fiasco Friday, is a perfect example. Relying on an auto-tuned rework of Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” it sounds, well, compromised, even during the song’s notable glimpses of lyrical sharpness.

More grating still is how opening track “Letting Go” stumbles immediately out of the gate. Between its sappy, over-produced piano beat and shoe-gazer lyrics, the final product has us wondering whether the fiercely defiant Lupe is somehow channeling Milhouse Van Houten on the mic. By the industry’s own standard, this is a song begging to be skipped by all but the least discerning listener.

And yet, one can also clearly hear tracks that throw off the chains in style. “Words I Never Said” is one of two tracks that Lupe claims to be inspired to write after folks threatened to protest. The other, “All Black Everything,” blends the kind of sincere, heart-on-sleeve creativity that is stock Lupe by now, spinning the history of American racism into an admittedly heart-tugging “what-if”:

“And we ain’t get exploited
White man ain’t feared it so he did not destroy it
We ain’t work for free, see they had to employ it
Built it up together so we equally appointed
First 400 years, see we actually enjoyed it
Constitution written by W.E.B. DuBois
Weren’t no Reconstruction, Civil War got avoided
Little Black Sambo grows up to be a lawyer”


Hardly surprising that the label didn’t want this on the radio. After all the attempts at watering down the album's content, they still ended up slapping a Parental Advisory sticker on it.

It’s a satisfying irony that in the months since Atlantic was forced to release Lasers under threat of public demonstration, protest itself seems to have taken on a new life. Areas as disparate as Madison and Cairo have been shaken the way many have been predicting since the onset of the Great Recession. In this new world, Lasers’ best moments--the denunciations of budget cuts and the war on terror, calling out Obama--actually resonate more than they would otherwise (surely to the chagrin of Atlantic Records).

In that respect, Lasers may be more an album for our times than either artist or label ever intended. Few releases in recent memory have so starkly embodied hip-hop’s pain and promise in the same breath. Fewer still can claim its best moments to be the progeny of protest.

"It was amazing, humbling, and inspiring,” said Lupe. “It made everything real, that your music is actually something that people want. And it's something that is successful, not in selling records, but the way it moves people and inspires them to do better for themselves." It’s a lesson that can be applied to a lot more than just music right now.

First appeared at Sociarts.com.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What's a Bieber? I Don't Know But He Needs To Shut His Mouth...


I've never really bought the idea that Justin Bieber is just some harmless, happy-go-lucky teen heart-throb. Anyone who saw the near-riot he inspired in Liverpool can attest to this. His most recent comments about abortion, however, cross a whole new line.

"I really don't believe in abortion," Bieber says. "It's like killing a baby?" When pressed about abortion when the pregnancy is the result of rape, Bieber says: "Um. Well, I think that's really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I guess I haven't been in that position, so I wouldn't be able to judge that."

Compared to the shitstorm faced by the Dixie Chicks of the world, Bieber has been subject to precious little criticism in the mainstream media. Rolling Stone, who published the interview initially, have called it a "controversy," but the fact is that nobody has called him on his comments. In fact, outside feminist publications and outlets, the criticism has been virtually nil.

Keep in mind that this comes just as the anti-choice crowd has resorted to some truly whacko tactics. Ohio is allowing for the calling of an "unborn witness" in its debate on a law that would place further restrictions on reproductive freedom (and no, I'm not making that up)! State legislatures in both Iowa and Nebraska are currently debating bills what would call the murder of abortion doctors "justifiable homicide."

Now, place this in the context of who Bieber is mostly marketed too: young girls. What he says carries weight in the multi-billion dollar industry of tween-marketing--more the doing of his handlers and record label than his own. It's a sad state of affairs when more attention is granted to an adolescent male pop star on reproductive freedom than, say, people who actually give a damn about reproductive freedom! But then, Bieber's music is directed at the exact demographic that the Catholic groups like to mobilize to picket in front of Planned Parenthood. Coming after years of chastity rings and abstinence-only sex ed, Bieber's words actually start to sound a bit more dangerous.

Has there ever been a better time for the return of Rock 4 Choice?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

And Now... Turning Up the Volume On Madison


Last night, Scott Walker's supporters in the Wisconsin Senate snuck in an under-the-radar vote on the bill seeking to strip the state's public workers of their collective bargaining. They were able to get around their lack of a quorum by doing away with any pretense of balancing the state's budget.

It was a dumb move. Not only has it confirmed what many of his critics have stated--that it was always about naked union busting from the get-go--it has turned Madison into a war-zone. The State Capitol building has been reoccupied. The march that has been called for Saturday by the AFL-CIO is now guaranteed to be massive and angry. Calls for a general strike have been redoubled and a national student walkout has been called for Friday.

It stands to reason that the voice of artists is also guaranteed to have an extra shot of bravado injected into it. Rightfully so. If there were ever a time for any artists or cultural workers to lend their support, this is it. On that tip, it seems right to repost the "Bread and Roses" statement, and strongly urge support for it:

We, the undersigned musicians, artists and cultural workers state our wholehearted support for Wisconsin’s public sector workers in their battle against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s draconian anti-union bill. Furthermore, we demand the Governor immediately rescind the aforementioned bill, despite its recent approval by the state Senate.

Gov. Walker has threatened to do away with any collective bargaining power for Wisconsin’s public sector unions. Tens of thousands of teachers, office workers, nurses, public parks employees and others have been hung out to dry, the security of their families’ futures thrown into deep question. If successful, it’s only a matter of time until all workers in every sector and every state face the same attacks.

The toll of this will go well beyond simple bread and butter. As artists, we understand that a robust culture is dependent on everyone having access to the means to create and express themselves. A further decline in working people's living standards, in essence, means that the arts and all the finer things in life will become the providence of the privileged.

Gov. Walker and others in support of this legislation have waxed sanctimonious about “shared sacrifice” in the name of balancing the state’s budget, but we know better. We know from history that troubled economic times always bring with them politicians seeking to pay for a crisis on workers’ backs. Walker obviously plans to walk in this same ignoble tradition.

We also know that in times like these, workers learn to fight back. History is filled with such heroic men and women who stood up for their rights to dignity and recognition in this country and beyond. From Cairo to Madison, today’s workers appear ready to do the same.

When ordinary folks recognize their own power, it can change everything. Such moments have produced some of the best music, art and writing of all time. “This Land Is Your Land.” “Guernica.” The Grapes of Wrath. The question for every artist, worker and community member today is the same today as it was then: “Which Side Are You On?”

Signed,

BBU, hip-hop group, Chicago
Son of Nun, activist and emcee, Baltimore
Phillip Morris, rapper, Chicago
Mike Alewitz, muralist and artistic director, Labor Art & Mural Project, New Britain, CT
Invincible, hip-hop artist and activist, Detroit
Bucky Halker, musician and labor historian, Chicago
Jared Paul, Strange Famous Records on AFW
Alan Hague, Prayers for Atheists (and member of AFSCME), Providence, RI
Agents of Change, Chicago
Socially Conscious Arts | SOCIARTS, Los Angeles
Reebee Garofalo, musician, HONK! Organizing Committee
Mat Callahan, musician and author of The Trouble With Music
Alexander Billet, music journalist, Chicago
Parviz Azad, composer and pianist, Woodland Hills, CA
Trish Kahle, fiction writer, poet and blogger, Winston-Salem, NC
Pedram Moallemian, writer and artist, Los Angeles
12Petals Media Group, San Francisco
Maryam Tabibzadeh, author of Persian Dreams, Raleigh, NC
Phillip Grant, anthropologist, translator and poet, Irvine, CA
Nalika Gajaweera, anthropologist, artist and teacher at UC Irvine
Mark Clinton, poet, political scientist, teacher, Holyoke, MA
Afsaneh Art & Culture Society - Ballet Afsaneh, San Francisco
DC Larson, former CD reviewer for Rockabilly Magazine and freelancer, Waterloo, IA
Steven Damewood, co-founder, Art for a democratic Society (A4dS), Oakland, CA
Nick Farza, composer and producer, MASQUE MusicArt, Boston
Generic Concession Stand, band, Philadelphia
Sh Massoudi, artist and teacher, California
Rebel Time Records, Hamilton, Ontario
Bahar Badizadegan, artist, musician, DJ, organizer and activist, Los Angeles
Benjamin Solah, horror writer and poet, Melbourne, Australia
Bita Shafipour, artist and activist, Santa Monica, CA
The Accountants of Homeland Security, sketch comedy group, Chicago
Negin Karbassian, artist, Los Angeles
Fereshteh Amin, educator, Los Angeles
Matthew Filipowicz, comedian, cartoonist, satirist, Chicago
Kevin Holm-Hudson, music theory professor, University of Kentucky
Max Monclair, graphic artist and media observer, Omaha, NE
Eric Hagstrom, block print maker and wood carver, Madison, WI

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Turning Up the Volume On Zimbabwe


I suppose that I knew my recent Dissident Voice article on music and repression in Zimbabwe was bound to provoke some ire. A commenter posted a few virulent words of his own over the weekend. Given how scattered and poorly written these words are to boot, they're not really worth quoting here. Nonetheless, I would encourage folks to read them.

In a nutshell, these comments accuse me, the musicians whom I quote, and the ISO Zimbabwe, of being shills for neoliberalism and US intervention. He then goes on to defend Mugabe's rule, relying on some false assumptions that the absence of the strongman necessarily means a wave of privatization is bound to sweep over the nation. Of course, this ignores the fact that Mugabe himself has been applying his own Shock Doctrine to the people of Zimbabwe for quite some time.

Normally, I couldn't care less what this or that troll has to say about my work. The Internet is awash with individuals who seem to gain some kind of ego-boost from tearing others down--a phenomenon that seems to be just as true when talking about the world of left sectariana. This, however is worth talking about for the simple reason that defense of Mugabe and his ilk has much broader implications.

The wave of revolutions sweeping the Middle East--and their profoundly, albeit contradictory, democratic content--are no news to folks by now. Which is what makes it frustrating that certain groups and individuals (most commonly those clinging to the old Stalinist ghost) seem to think it's up to them and them alone to pick and choose which of these movement are worth support. The rationales behind support for strongmen like Mugabe (or Gaddafi in Libya or Ahmadinejad in Iran) vary, but all seem to grasp at these leaders being some kind of "progressive" alternative to the US war machine, the IMF, World Bank, etc.

Of course there is no doubt that foreign intervention in any country has to be opposed (especially in the current case of Libya). But let's not fool ourselves. The "official," state-sanctioned culture in all of these countries is one of intimidation. The state of art, music and censorship laws that go up against them are only one indicator of how deep this runs, but it's telling nonetheless.

As folks will remember, Zimbabwe relies on censorship and violence to keep artists silent. Gaddafi hasn't only been engaging in brutal repression to keep himself in power, he's been shutting down websites for the crime of distributing hip-hop mixtapes. During the height of the green movement eighteen months ago, no Iranian MCs, artists or producers who I attempted to interview were willing to do so unless they remained anonymous, so palpable was the fear of Ahmadinejad's secret police.

One must ask, if all of these leaders supposedly enjoy such wide support among the populace, why is it necessary to rely on such repression of music and culture?

----------------------------------------

Fortunately, the number of those who have bought into this mistaken notion haven't been large enough to hamper movements of global solidarity. Most heartening is the affect this has had on the Zimbabwean authorities, who two days ago released 39 of the 45 activists and socialists who had been originally arrested for the "crime" of watching video clips from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.

Obviously, the struggle continues. The remaining six imprisoned are the most high profile activists, and the courts still hope to make an example out of them; each face charges that possibly carry a death sentence.

Solidarity demonstrations have been called at embassies and consulates in New York and Washington, DC. An iPetitions page has been set up which folks should most definitely lend their voices to. Or, they may choose to send their own email of protest directly to the Zimbabwean authorities. The email addresses of those who should receive these messages can be viewed on the iPetition. Alternately, folks may consider joining the Facebook page or donating to the freedom fund.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Woman's Place is In the Front


Today marks the centennial of International Women's Day. One would wish that this marker would fall during some better times for working women. But alas, I'm writing this in the midst of one of the most absurdly vicious assaults on a woman's right to choose in quite some time. (Post forthcoming on that... I'm looking in your direction Bieber!)

Of course, this day is about a lot more than abortion rights--essential though they are to women's liberation. It's about recognition that working men can only be held back if they aren't prepared to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their female counterparts. In short, it's about equality. Straight up. Though it's not acknowledged by most in the mainstream, there are some incredible examples of this today, most notably in the case of the Egyptian Revolution.

So here it is. A few vids in tribute to this day. It's something I've done before, but it still seems the most appropriate way to just let the music speak for itself.









Monday, March 7, 2011

Breaking the Sound Barrier In Madison


Since mid-February, the hub of America's now open class struggle has been the state Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. Scott Walker, the state's right-wing, Tea Party-backed governor, thought it would be easy to gut the unions of state employees, like kicking a wounded puppy. What he didn't expect was to be bitten back.

After Walker's attempt at old-fashioned union-busing went public, the state's population of workers, labor activists, students and community members burst forth in what can only be called a full-fledged uprising. The state Capitol was occupied, demonstrations of tens of thousands descended on the city, and for the first time in who knows how many decades, the term "general strike" doesn't seem so far-fetched. It's no overstatement to say that the "Battle of Madison" has the potential to change everything.

Tom Morello calls it "this amazing alternate version of America." The Rage Against the Machine guitarist, erstwhile Nightwatchman (and card-carrying Wobbly) was clearly moved. On February 21, he dropped everything, flew to Madison and performed for the demonstrators. "It's not just, you know, fresh-faced students from the university," he said. "It's firefighters and teachers and nurses and steelworkers, all of whom are living in the State Capitol and defending it!"

Morello wasn't the only musician who visited the State Capitol that day. The Boston punk group Street Dogs also took the stage, along with 1960s rebel rock legend Wayne Kramer, plus Tim McIlrath of Rise Against.

Street Dogs front-man Mike McColgan says he too could feel something different in the air: "Sometimes, when you see protests, you know that they're temporary, and they're fleeting, and they're obligatory or staged or just a quick reflex. This protest in Madison is not a reflex, it's not obligatory, it's not going to go away. It's spreading around the United States."

If the people in the streets and the Capitol were from all walks and backgrounds, the songs performed that day reflected that. McIlrath played both Neil Young's "Ohio" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain?" Street Dogs counterposed their brand-new "Up the Union" with Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." Morello's "Union Song" was, of course, a staple. Kramer updated his own "American Ruse" to the "Republican Blues." And the performance ended with all musicians singing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," including the now-famed "lost verses."

Hearing Morello and McColgan speak, it's clear that their presence in Madison affected both them and the protesters. "The overwhelming response was so warm," Morello says. "Between every song, there was this thunderous chant of 'Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!'"

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The struggle gripping the city has caught the attention of the music world from its inception. The day after Valentine's Day, when thousands initially took over the Capitol, Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X was in nearby Platteville to speak at a Black History Month event. The scale of resistance he saw was so impressive that after finishing his speech in Platteville, he immediately headed back to Madison.

The result was a from-the-ground music video for a track Jasiri had only recently written: "American Workers vs. Multi-Billionaires."

According to the MC, he had been thinking about the imminent budget cuts for a while before penning the lyrics: "I thought about how these decisions are being made by millionaires and billionaires, but they affect people who are most in need. That was the concept of the song, and it was mind-boggling when all this happened."

Jasiri, who has also written high-profile songs protesting the injustices that befell the Jena Six in Louisiana and the Sean Bell verdict in New York City, makes no bones about siding with working people:

"Can Main Street get a bailout?
Tell the president our checks weren't mailed out!
Tell the House of Representatives and Senate
That whichever businesses got the stimulus should spend it.
Now they're getting record profits that are tripling with no limit
But they're cutting jobs, and unemployment benefits have ended
How we gonna live with no income coming in?
And the little healthy kid is cut from the budget then, then
Then what's the role of government
Do workers stand a chance when multi-billionaires are running it?"


The track has since rocketed around the Internet, garnering recognition and messages of thanks from folks in Madison and from workers' rights activists worldwide.

Jasiri told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that what struck him the most was the attitude inside the Capitol building. "The people were so nice and it was a happy, jovial atmosphere," he said. "People weren't down. They were genuinely happy--drumming, dancing, singing. It was literally so loud that I couldn't hear the song unless I had earphones in." Seems enough to inspire any artist.

And indeed it has. Since Madison exploded, musicians seem to have been some of the most eager to use their art and status as a platform. Ani DiFranco has characteristically posted a statement of solidarity with the "fellow workers" on her Facebook page.

Dropkick Murphys (for whom McColgan used to sing) dedicated a track from their new album to Wisconsin's workers, and a limited-edition T-shirt whose proceeds are going to the Workers' Rights Emergency Response Fund. And a statement, "Artists United for Wisconsin Workers," has attracted the support not just of rappers and producers, folk singers and metal bands, but painters, poets, authors and arts collectives.

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On the night of February 21, only a few hours after enduring frigid temperatures in front of the Capitol, Morello, Kramer, McIlrath and Street Dogs played a "Rock for YOUR Rights" show. The theme of the night, from the artists and guest speakers, was the need for solidarity. Any time a performer even mentioned the word union, it was greeted with ear-splitting applause. Governor Walker's name provoked raw collective ire. The display of unity was staggering.

"Culture is an important component of any struggle," says Morello. "People can read a pamphlet, they can hear a speech, but there's something in the DNA of human beings that responds to music in a very particular and forceful way... And when you've got 10,000 people or 30,000 people singing a song in solidarity together, it really does put wind in the sails of a struggle."

Less than a week later, on February 26, as Madison hosted the largest protest in Wisconsin's history, Morello returned to play for the demonstration. Also taking the stage was Peter Yarrow of seminal folk-revivalists Peter, Paul and Mary. The scene could have been pulled straight from the 1930s--with snow pouring down on countless union supporters holding placards and signs, Yarrow led the crowd in a version of the old labor classic "Which Side Are You On?"

The links drawn over these past few weeks have been profound, bringing together past and present, rock, folk and hip-hop, music and struggle. These are links that have always been there, for the most part buried and obscured. But moments like these often look capable of blowing everything wide open.

McColgan feels it's been a long time coming: "I think working class people are tired of turning the other cheek and they're going to push back for their rights."

His own labor credentials are hard to argue with. Two years in AFSCME, seven years in the graphic communications union, four years as a union firefighter in Boston. "Union members, no matter what job they're from--private sector, public sector--everybody's protesting, everybody's saying enough is enough," he said. "And I think it's about time. I think it's a new age, and I don't think people are going to relent."

If McColgan is right, then we're in for an outpouring of struggle and solidarity that many of us haven't seen in our lifetime. That so many have already reached out to inspire each other across lines of race, background and even style goes to show just how much power this coming wave may have.

Special thanks to Andy Stefan for his assistance with this article.

First published at SocialistWorker.org.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Beats Against Repression In Zimbabwe


“No more internal power struggle;
We come together to overcome the little trouble.
Soon we'll find out who is the real revolutionary,
'Cause I don't want my people to be contrary.”
--Bob Marley, “Zimbabwe”


March 3rd marked the fifth annual “Music Freedom Day.” Associated with Danish artists’ rights organization Freemuse, it’s designed to bring attention to the repression and exploitation of musicians around the world. Over 30 events were held in a variety of countries--including, notably, some in North Africa and the Middle East, whose nations have been gripped by uprisings and revolutions. Egypt and Jordan were both among those counties whose Music Freedom Day took on a whole new meaning.

And so it was in Zimbabwe. This year’s event took place in Harare’s Book Cafe, featuring performances from three of the country’s best-known political artists. The really impressive act, however, came from the 2,000 artists who ordered the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation to observe six hours of silence.

According to Albert Nyathi, musician and head of the Zimbabwe Music Rights Association (ZIMURA), the demand came as a protest against the rather brazen ripoff of Zimbabwe’s artists. “The ZBC owes musicians more than $300,000 in unpaid royalties and this is unacceptable,” said Nyathi. “We have tried in vain to have that money paid, but ZBC have not given us a firm commitment...”

The vicious, tyrannical and corrupt practices of President Robert Mugabe are by now common knowledge among human rights, labor and solidarity activists. Once a major figure in the country’s leftist liberation movement against white rule, he is now a leader who has made his peace with the lash of austerity. During the most recent General Election in 2008, when Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party suffered serious defeats, Mugabe engaged in widespread intimidation, assaults and arrests to maintain his rule.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Mugabe cares little for the nation’s rich and varied musical traditions, or their deep connections to popular struggles. In fact, if Mugabe had his way, that connection would be severed at the root.

There are no obscenity laws in Zimbabwe, Rather, says US writer and filmmaker Banning Eyre,

“A climate of fear affects composers, singers, DJs, journalists and writers alike, muting and even silencing many artistic voices. Broadcasters are closely watched and often scripted to avoid any criticism of the state. Some have lost their jobs when they were judged to have crossed the line.”

The ZBC--whose four channels are the only legal stations in Zimbabwe--maintains nothing less than a blacklist of artists who dare to speak out. Countless artists, including some of the country’s most famous, have complained of having their most political songs denied any airplay whatsoever.

To make matters worse, the Zimbabwe Music Corporation and its subsidiary Gramma run what is basically a monopoly over all domestic or foreign music released within the country’s borders. “Apart from the ZBC not playing us, the recording companies are also refusing to release our music,” says artist Leonard Zhakara. “I have albums that are ready but the record companies are afraid to release them.”

The consequences of this censorship aren’t mere trifles. During the 1980s and 90s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was reaching disastrous proportions in Zimbabwe, artists who even mentioned the diseases had their songs banned on the grounds that they might offend conservative values on sex. It was only one aspect of a full-fledged state refusal to acknowledge AIDS. Today, the infection HIV infection rate in Zimbabwe hovers somewhere around 40%.

Then, there’s the toll that the state takes on the musicians themselves. Artists who write political songs risk harassment and even violence. Fans of their music or concert attendees have been assaulted by gangs identifying themselves as “veterans” of the war for liberation. Thomas Mapfumo, the famed “Lion of Zimbabwe,” innovator of Afropop who once toured with Bob Marley, has faced such harassment for his anti-Mugabe views that he was forced to flee the country in the late 90s.

Now, with a wave of revolt sweeping down the African continent, Mugabe’s repression only appears to be intensifying. On February 19th, forty-five activists and members of Zimbabwe’s International Socialist Organization were arrested and detained on charges of “treason.” Their crime? Watching videos of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The activists have been tortured, denied medical care, and currently face the death penalty if convicted. The severity of punishment they face speaks to how much Mugabe and the Zanu-PF fear such a revolt in their own borders.

It’s been said that one can measure the freedom of a society by the diversity of its art. At one point, Mugabe’s cronies appeared to believe this. In 1972, when the Zanu-PF was still struggling against Rhodesian apartheid, it publicly stated:

“In a free, democratic, independent and socialist Zimbabwe the people will be encouraged and assisted in building a new Zimbabwe culture, derived from the best in what our history and heritage has given, and developed to meet the needs of the new socialist society...”

Compared to the present reality, those words ring hollow. For the Zimbabwean people, their country isn't free, democratic or independent. It most certainly isn't socialist. Like countless other tyrants on the continent, it's time for Mugabe to face the music.

First appeared at Dissident Voice.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Brass Unbound


Not too many details are available on this outside of the Facebook page, but apparently today there is scheduled to be a "New Orleans jazz funeral" march to the Capitol in Madison. One certainly has to hand it to the people of Wisconsin: they know how to keep up the heat in creative ways.

That heat is of course now needed more than ever. Last night Senate Bill 5, the Ohio counterpart to Scott Walker's attempt at gutting public unions, was passed by a narrow margin. Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, says he will sign it.

In Wisconsin, music has been a part of this struggle from the beginning (article forthcoming), but there is something in particular about the marching jazz band that sticks out to this writer.

I recently spoke to Reebee Garofalo, a musician himself and author of several excellent books on music and social change. Garofalo's most recent project is the HONK! festival, a yearly event that brings radical brass bands from all over the country to converge on Somerville, Massachusetts. One of the slogans that has emerged from the recent years has been "no sound is illegal."

The emergence (or rather re-emergence) of radical activist brass bands is telling. One can't think of a music form better suited for actual protesting; brass is loud without needing amplification, it's mobile, and lends itself to the kind of outrageous sounds that are likely to spark something wild in a listener. Obviously this is something that has been recognized since well before the 21st century.

The folks in New Orleans have known it for a long time. My friend who lives in NOLA (yes, the same mentioned in Monday's post) also tells me that any protest with any cred whatsoever includes music or dance in some way. Those who are skeptical about the role that music has in a protest most likely haven't heard it done well. It makes sense, then, that this kind of music should make its way to what has become the focal point of struggle recently.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Middle East Rebel Songs


Given the new reality that's unfolding every day in the Middle East and North Africa, sites like these are going to be crucial. Mideast Tunes puts the focus on young artists and musicians from around the region and in a multitude of genres: Afghanistan, Morocco, Syria, Oman, hip-hop, electro, punk, metal. If it manages to get your head bobbing, there's a good chance it's on Mideast Tunes.

Like much of what's emerged from the region over the past few months, the content flies in the face of so many mad mullah myths that have been spun over the past decade plus. Here is a region full of young, talented people, some Muslim, some Christian or Jewish or atheist, with a variety of views about the past and present. What unites all of the artists, however, is expressed on the masthead itself: "music for social justice."

The importance of outlets like these in building links between young folks across regions and cultures can't be overstated. At least the powers-that-be certainly think so; the Khalas site out of Libya that has been distributing the free hip-hop mixtape--mentioned in a recent post here at RF--is now inexplicably offline, and has been for several days now. No doubt an act of censorship on the part of Gaddafi's goons. All the more reason to bring attention to Mideast Tunes.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gaddafi's Blood Music


Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Usher and 50 Cent are now facing pressure to donate the money they've received from the Gaddafi regime to charity. All four have apparently played at massive parties thrown by the dictator's son, Muatassim, in recent years. These parties are the kind of shamelessly lavish affairs that make a Paris Hilton soiree look tame. And they are of course paid for on the back of the Libyan people. The bill for hiring an artist on the level of Usher or Carey is chump change to the Gaddafis.

Now, with whole swathes of the country under control of pro-democracy demonstrators and rebels, the regime's forty-year-old dirty laundry is getting aired. The Rolling Stone article that reports on the controversy is correct in calling out the brutality of Gaddafi's rule, but one wonders where such condemnation was prior to the uprising. In general, the media places a black out on the past fifteen years since Gaddafi made his peace with the US. His own brutality certainly took no pauses during those years.

The insistence they give the money to charity, however, deserves a bit more investigation. There are plenty of charities that do decent work in Africa, seeking to empower rather than condescend, but the best-funded ones are the "Bono Inc." type: those that donate paltry sums raised from a portion of sales from commodities often built in African sweatshops. These are the charities that preserve the status quo on the continent. Dictators and strongmen make for excellent free-trade zones.

With the US and EU now circling like vultures, seeking to swoop in and crush a popular revolt under the guise of humanitarianism, it's a legit concern. The money that Usher, Fiddy and the like got from the regime should be going to those who need it the most: the Libyan people who are now rising up.